The Magazine

Leader Dearest

How the Kim dynasty preserves its power.

Oct 14, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 06 • By GORDON G. CHANG
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

The never-ending intrigue and struggle inside the army is a major factor in making the North so volatile, and troubles in the military undercut the prevailing view among Korea-watchers that Kim Jong-un has consolidated power faster than anticipated.  

Bechtol’s main contribution—and it is a critical one—is drawing the line from Pyongyang’s ugly succession politics to its belligerent external behavior. He starts with Kim Jong-il’s final years: In a detailed chapter, he discusses the fateful year of 2010, when the North lashed out along the Northern Limit Line, the disputed Yellow Sea border between the two Koreas. In March, a North Korean submarine torpedoed the South Korean navy ship Cheonan, killing 46 sailors. Two soldiers and two civilians died when the North shelled Yeonpyeong Island in November.

These deadly incidents were executed to gain support among Kim Jong-un’s young, hardline “guardian cadres.” Attacks will probably continue, he argues, because provocations along the Northern Limit Line are not only part of the North’s asymmetric tactics to intimidate Seoul, but they help consolidate the succession, which is clearly Kim’s top priority.

Moreover, the author’s general view of the regime—that its institutions and basic ideological framework have not changed and cannot evolve as long as the Kim family rules—leads to his conclusion that Pyongyang will continue its provocative and violent behavior. Kim cannot act peacefully because to do so would undermine the beliefs, developed by his grandfather and father, that hold the ruling group together. This explains why North Korea has remained belligerent no matter who resides in the White House.   

Kim Jong-un is bound by the conventions established by his predecessors, which means that he cannot easily divert North Korea from its unsustainable path. In his final years, Kim Jong-il pursued “defiant” policies, especially in his development of nuclear warheads and proliferation of weapons, and the North will continue this aggressive behavior. Because Kim Jong-il refused to change course, Bechtol believes that the country is at risk—especially if Kim Jong-un fails to exert his authority at the center. In that case, the military might splinter, and factional struggle could intensify. Kim Jong-il continued his father’s misguided policies, and Kim Jong-un does not appear strong enough to hold a failing state together.

Gordon G. Chang is the author of Nuclear Showdown: North Korea Takes On the World